Roman Britain: a brief history

Reference guide for primary

Last updated: 12th December 2019

The Romans in Britain

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From the founding of the city of Rome in the 8th century BC, Roman power had grown steadily until by the 1st century AD Rome ruled over an empire that stretched north, east and south of its Mediterranean centre. After 43AD this included much of Britain. The Romans stayed in Britain for nearly 400 years, until the last troops left to defend Rome in 410AD.

The Romans' great strengths were organisational and military. They brought urban life, roads, permanent military garrisons, centralised government, taxation, their language – Latin – and later Christianity to all the lands they conquered.

The Romans have left us a rich variety of written and archaeological sources about their lives in Britain. Julius Caesar, Tacitus and others wrote extensively, presenting us with the Roman version of events. Archaeological sources include roads, coins, jewellery, gravestones, statues; the ruins of baths, villas, forts and palaces, and the magnificent Hadrian's Wall.

Key events to highlight

Roman Britannia

The new rulers brought central government, coinage, towns, baths, circuses, gladiators, taxes, roads and country villas. See Roman shopping and Roman baths, and Building a Roman road.

Many Britons became Romanised and urbanised: they wore togas, learnt Latin, built town houses and villas. For others, particularly small rural farmers, the pattern of life probably did not change much, apart from the obligation to pay taxes to their Roman rulers.

The beginning of the end

During the 3rd and 4th centuries AD the province of Britannia was under threat of invasion by Hibernians (Irish), Caledonians and Picts (Scots), and pirates and raiders from northern Europe. The Romans' answer was to build a series of forts around the south and east coasts of Britannia, known as the Forts of the Saxon Shore. For a while they kept the attackers from across the North Sea at bay. Attacks on the whole Roman Empire increased, until finally in 410 AD the Roman army was withdrawn from Britannia and the Britons were left to fend for themselves.

Remember that although the Roman army was recalled in 410 AD, the Romans themselves did not all leave. Examples of those who stayed were retired legionaries and government employees who had settled in Britain, had married Celtic women, or had nothing to go back to in their countries of origin.

See The end of Roman Britain (lesson plan).